The rise of ethical eating provenance on a plate

64% of consumers believe restaurants are not doing enough to tackle the social and environmental impact of their decisions says the Sustainable Restaurant Association

A couple enjoy dinner at Hermitage Bay, a five star all-inclusive hotel in Antigua. Browsing the menu, they refer to an app on their iPhone to help them make a responsible choice. They avoid the foie gras and opt for fungee, a regional dish made with local ingredients. Yes, even the Caribbean—notorious for clocking up air miles and disregarding local produce—is now sourcing closer to home.

The provenance of food is now a need to know for increasing numbers of people, who are insisting on eating with a clear conscience. This is reflected in the growing number of "ethical" eating apps on the market designed to let diners and shopper know in an instant where and how their food is grown.

Sustainable sourcing is an important issue for increasing numbers of businesses and consumers. So significant has it become that there are now even iPhone apps that allow shoppers and diners to instantly access details about the provenance of food before they buy or locate restaurants that serve only local produce.

In a nutshell, sustainable sourcing ensures, to the best of the food chain’s ability, that purchases have no, or only a limited negative impact on their source communities and ecosystems. In short, we want to know where our food comes from, and the impact that it has had on its workers—both in the developing and developed world. A survey last year found that 92% of people wanted more information about the green credentials of the food they buy.

Supermarkets are increasingly doing their bit responding to the public—every purchase we make sends a message and you only have see the prevalence of “ethical” produce available on their shelves to see how demand has changed supply.

But what about the hospitality industry? In research conducted by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA, www.thesra.org), 64% of consumers believe restaurants are not doing enough to tackle the social and environmental impact of their decisions. This is beginning to change, however, reports the SRA’s operations manager Saskia Restorick: “Judging by the number of international enquiries we have already had, there is clearly a growing appetite for restaurants to address sustainability issues around the globe.”

The hospitality industry can make a huge difference. As a prerequisite to making a purchasing decision, it should take into account its responsibility for energy consumption, food miles, water and waste, and its role in farming systems, animal welfare, food education and the environment.

Many have already forged strong links with local suppliers; an increasing number are even growing their own—restoring traditional potagers, grubbing up the grass to establish new kitchen gardens, even maximising rooftop space in an effort to bring food to the table with the minimum mileage and the maximum freshness.

A POLL OF 3,000 DINERS DISCOVERED BATTERY CHICKENS WERE CONSIDERED THE MOST UNETHICAL TYPE OF FOOD
RECENT SQUARE MEAL MAGAZINE POLL

Provenance and traceability is key—especially when it comes to meat and fish. Ask a waiter where the chef’s beef has come from and they’ll invariably tell you—that’s if the supplier is not already credited on the menu. And there’s no market in any good restaurant for cheap chicken—a Square Meal magazine website poll of 3,000 diners discovered battery chickens were considered the most unethical type of food, above produce such as shark’s fin, foie gras and veal.

While on the fish front, “bluefin” tuna is almost considered a dirty word on menus, and monkfish is increasingly difficult to find as support for sustainability gathers pace.

Meanwhile charities, such as StreetSmart and Action Against Hunger, are reporting increasing backing from the industry—and some restaurants are even ploughing their profits back into the local community.

London restaurants, Acorn House, which opened in November 2006, and Waterhouse, which began serving two years later, are both owned by the award-winning, charitable-regeneration agency Shoreditch Trust. Some of their profits (Acorn House turned over its first £1m after 14 months) went on a combined heat and power programme for the community, burning rubbish to generate electricity.

Waterhouse incorporates a dazzling array of sustainable measures. Ambient-temperature water from the nearby canal provides its cooling and heating system, roof-mounted solar panels heats its water and provides renewable electricity, there are hydro-carbon fridges, water is filtered and bottled on-site, a wormery digests unused raw food, a hot composter manages the garden’s waste, an experimental bokashi system transforms cooking oil into a compostable substance, and the kitchen runs on hydro electricity. You don’t get much more ethical than this.

But according to the UK’s Environment Agency, the hotel and restaurant industry has the lowest environmental awareness of all business sectors. “There are some shining examples of restaurants reducing waste, energy and water use, but there is a huge opportunity here to do more, at both the operational and fit-out-and-design stages. Those not already engaged with these issues are missing out on a huge opportunity to cut costs, operate more effectively and win more customers,” believes Restorick.

HOTTEST AREA IN ETHICAL SOURCING? KNOWING YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT
BEN REYNOLDS, SUSTAINABLE NETWORK DIRECTOR

Over the past couple of years Sustain (www.sustainweb.org), an alliance that advocates improved food and farming practices, has been running a programme of events on subjects such as energy and waste. It has also introduced farm visits and a “meet the producer” initiative, which is proving particularly popular, reports Sustain’s network director Ben Reynolds.

“A few years ago, restaurants would work closely with producers but were reluctant to communicate that to their customers in case it felt like lecturing. That’s changed. Increasingly customers do want to know more about where their food has come from—the market is there,” insists Reynolds.

And what's the hottest topic in the area of ethical sourcing of food and drink in the hospitality industry? “Knowing your carbon footprint,” says Reynolds.

Otarian does not hide its greenhouse-gases emissions: the international vegetarian restaurant group, with four sites in New York and now London, carbon footprints everything on its menus. Diners can even notch up Carbon Karma credits every time they eat, and in return Otarian rewards them with a free dish or two. Just be prepared from the occasional lambasting from food critics. “The stated mission completely obstructs the fact the place makes pretty good food,” moans Esquire’s Ryan D’Agostino.

Says president and CEO, Radhika Oswal: “Otarian is based on my passion for a dream of a sustainable planet. Vegetarianism, or at the very least a substantial decrease in meat consumption, is a simple, immediately available way of reaching many environmental, social and economic sustainability goals.”

Stefan Gossling came to a similar conclusion in his new report titled Food Management in Tourism: Reducing Tourism’s Carbon Footprint. It reviews the carbon intensity of selected foods, including meat, and discusses how food-service providers could improve their practices.

MCDONALDS IS UNDERTAKING A THREE YEAR SURVEY INTO THE STUDY OF METHANE EMISSIONS FROM CATTLE ON 350 FARMS
MCDONALDS

From the methane produced by cows, to the machines used on farms, and the lorries used to transport the meat; beef production emits high levels of carbon dioxide when compared to other foods. So the world’s biggest burger chain, McDonald’s, has declared it is taking steps to cut cows’ methane emissions.

The fast-food giant is spending thousands of pounds investigating what comes out of its beef cows. It’s conducting a three-year study into methane emissions from cattle on 350 farms across Britain using a sophisticated greenhouse gas calculator accredited to the Carbon Trust to measure the results. Specialist consultants are on hand to advise farmers on the best ways to reduce emissions and increase efficiency. If successful, the initiative will be extended to McDonald’s in Europe.

Another burger chain, Sweden’s Max Burger, claims to be the first in the world to publish CO2 emissions on its menus. Sweden has been particularly active in this department—its National Food Administration has issued guidelines emphasizing that the environmental impact of food (pesticide use, biodiversity effect and climate impact) should be taken into account as well as food’s nutritional benefit.

All this will no doubt please Harriet Lamb. Like everybody in Britain, Lamb is excited about the 2012 Olympics. But not just because of the games. No, she wants the athletes to embrace Fairtrade products—from the bouquets of flowers for the winners to the energy-giving bananas munched by the participants for breakfast. “Wouldn’t that be lovely? It would be the symbolic icing on the cake,” grins the executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last year.

Awareness of Fairtrade in Europe is now 50% (in the UK it’s 72%) and sales of Fairtrade products reached the £800 million mark in 2009. The public has a proven appetite for the work of the foundation, which focuses on achieving a fair price for producers in developing countries for a fast-growing range of items from cocoa and coffee to cotton and fruit.

Now the foundation would like to take this success story to the out-of-home market. They have been encouraging hotel chains to purchase not only Fairtrade food products—such as tea, coffee, chocolate and biscuits—but also its cotton sheets and towels, as well as cosmetics in the bathroom.

And there’s no reason why Fairtrade won’t pull it off. They have already persuaded UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s to only list Fairtrade bananas (since 2007), Cadbury’s to use Fairtrade cocoa in its Dairy Milk, and Starbucks to provide Fairtade coffee; so the major players in the hotel industry should be a breeze.

“We need the big boys because they can deliver the market changes that we need to take us forward. Farmers are queuing up to participate in Fairtrade, they are just waiting for the public—and the industry—to ask for more products,” explains Lamb.

Another certification scheme with strong environmental standards is the Rainforest Alliance. UK's Costa Coffee, part of Whitbread Plc, is now sourcing increasing amounts of its bean supply from farms approved by the non-governmental organisation. It ensures that the people who grow the coffee, and the land on which it was grown, are carefully supported and sustained. Through the Costa foundation, the coffee chain is also giving back to coffee-growing communities by providing children with access to education through school building and maintenance projects as well as investing in clean water, sanitation, teacher accommodation and children nutrition programmes

A Toptable survey showed that 71% of diners are more likely to eat somewhere accredited by a reputable sustainability body. When asked whether they thought restaurants and chefs should lead by example in promoting healthy and sustainable food choices, 93% of respondents said yes.

ON SOME ISSUES IT’S A QUESTION OF CHANGING BEHAVIOURS NOW TO ENSURE THAT AN INDUSTRY STILL EXISTS, FOR EXAMPLE, FISHING PRACTICES
SASKIA RESTORICK

And what if the hospitality sector does not change, and it continues to source food and drink as before? “On some issues it’s a question of changing behaviours now to ensure that an industry still exists—if we don’t change fishing practices, we could deplete the oceans and certain species of fish to complete extinction,” warns Restorick.

“We’re only slowly beginning to realize the longer-term consequences of some of our current patterns of production and consumption. A more sustainable approach, as well as providing immediate improvements, has seriously important longer-term benefits for our oceans, wildlife and biodiversity—and for our descendants’ quality of life.

“A combination of volatile food prices, increasing consumer demand for ethically-sourced produce and variations to the seasons due to climate changes means that it simply won’t be possible to continue ‘business as usual’. The successful businesses will be those that understand the trends and adapt sooner rather than later,” she concludes.

Some areas of the world will face greater challenges than others, particularly in the developing world, where factors such as droughts and lack of fertile soil, will hamper progress. But a look at global hotel groups, such as Four Seasons, shows how the balance can be maintained by focusing on the individual needs and circumstances of each property.

Every Four Seasons hotel has established a Green Team, which involves employees at every level. The Green Team’s efforts vary from property to property, but the focus is on seeking efficiencies across its operations, including using local suppliers where possible and reducing food wastage. Initiatives include Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia sending cooking oil to a local farmer to be converted to bio-fuel and Four Seasons Costa Rica donating all organic food waste to a local farm for animal feed.

Luxury hotel and resort group Six Senses, with properties in the Maldives, Oman, Thailand and Vietnam, has concentrated on responsible food sourcing. “The main principle is to focus on using local produce, which both supports the economy and also improves the carbon footprint by reducing our transportation needs. For many years now, we’ve grown our own produce in the herb and vegetable gardens at most of the Six Senses resorts,” says founder Sonu Shivdasani.

At Soneva Fushi—the operator’s presence on the Maldives—the organic garden supplies 75% of the resort’s salad and herb needs as well as a rich choice of fruit and vegetables. “Working with fresh ingredients is so much better for the chefs to produce quality food. “Furthermore, we select as many organic and sustainable products as we can; not only does this help with the carbon footprint, but it is also the healthiest option,” adds Shivdasani, who has banned bluefin tuna and shark from the menu, and instructs staff to closely monitor the size of the fish they accept from their fishermen. He has also introduced a weekly meat-free day in the resorts to highlight the carbon released from meat production.

Meanwhile, back at Hermitage Bay in Antigua, guests are encouraged to visit the farmers, as well as to eat their produce in its restaurant. Chef Verman Banhan spends a good deal of time with Mr Christian—his number one supplier. It’s easy to why the relationship is so strong—Christian is hugely passionate, propagating new varieties here, trialling better-tasting guavas there, producing everything from mallie apples to naseberries. “Mallie apples make great tarts,” enthuses Banhan, who escorts guests personally on the farm visits. If the Caribbean can source locally, the excuses have really run out for everybody else.

Fiona Sims is a food, drink and travel writer writing for top newspapers and magazines including The Times, The Guardian, Caterer & Hotelkeeper, High Life and Sainsbury’s Magazine.

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